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Kevin O'Leary needs to be taken seriously.

People with deep ties to the Conservative Party are backing him. Former prime minister Stephen Harper is not opposed to having Mr. O'Leary as his successor. His team says it has recruited 14,000 new members in three weeks and, most important, the candidate may have more facility in French than we think.

There is a very real chance that Kevin O'Leary could take on Justin Trudeau in 2019.

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Margaret Wente: Kevin O'Leary, a Trump-lite bully, could be Trudeau's worst nightmare

For subscribers: Hot air: The truth about Kevin O'Leary's business history

John Ibbitson: Voting for Conservative leader: What would Stephen Harper do?

Some political observers (including this writer) have been dismissive of the expat entrepreneur-cum-television-star. For one thing, the reasoning goes, he is unilingual, which means there is no other thing. No leader of a national political party can be unilingual, and that's all there is to it.

But a senior official with the campaign, speaking on background, said that Mr. O'Leary did speak French when he was growing up in Montreal. He lost it after moving away when he was seven or eight. For the past month, he has been intensively tutored in French, and plans to attempt a few forays in the language at a leadership debate in Montreal Monday.

On this front, real and rapid progress is essential. Yes, the Conservative Party is weak in Quebec, but many in English Canada, especially Ontario, would never risk national unity by voting for a candidate who doesn't speak both official languages. No French, no chance. Simple as that.

Mr. O'Leary also has several large suitcases – trunks, really – of negatives. He lives in the United States (at least Michael Ignatieff had the decency to move back for a spell), has no ties to the Conservative Party, and invites comparisons to Donald Trump, a fellow entrepreneur-cum-television-star who is deeply disliked by most Canadians.

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Nonetheless, a surprising number of people within the Conservative establishment are backing Mr. O'Leary, convinced that his business background and flamboyant showmanship make him the best candidate to take on Justin Trudeau.

Former Premier Mike Harris is on his advisory committee, as are Marjory LeBreton, former leader of the government in the Senate; Mike Coates, who was a close adviser to Mr. Harper and is now a senior figure at Hill + Knowlton; Ken Hughes, former MP and energy minister in Alberta; Ontario MP Guy Lauzon, who was national Conservative caucus chair; and former Edmonton MP Tim Uppal.

While Stephen Harper will support no candidate, the two had a long and friendly telephone chat before Mr. O'Leary entered the race and Mr. Harper said nothing then or later, to Mr. O'Leary or others, to discourage his campaign. A conversation with former prime minister Brian Mulroney was equally cordial.

Organizers say they have signed up an average of 700 new members a day since the campaign launched three weeks ago, which is impressive. Last week, billionaire businessman and Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini hosted a fundraising luncheon for his friend in Vancouver. Some 100 people contributed about $100,000, according to a representative for Mr. O'Leary. Total fundraising to date, according to the campaign, is $500,000. That's real.

As for the comparisons with Donald Trump – well, they are what they are. But Mr. O'Leary differs from Mr. Trump in supporting Canada's robust immigration policy. He says he would never limit abortion rights, and he supports full rights for sexual minorities.

Mr. O'Leary faces a mountain range of challenges. Apart from the language question, his brash, facile and sometimes conspicuously uninformed response to questions on health care, crime and other policy issues should reassure no one.

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In the ranked ballot by which Conservatives choose their leader, Mr. O'Leary may be many people's first choice. But he is a polarizing figure, and the candidate who is most people's second or third choice is likely to prevail. That reality favours MPs Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer and Erin O'Toole. (The fact Mr. O'Leary has no seat in Parliament is another drawback.)

Still, the fact remains that Kevin O'Leary is a serious player in this contest. A surprising number of Conservatives with a track record of winning are behind him. He is attracting new members, money and buzz. He needs to be watched.

With a report from Laura Stone

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